The answer to the question everyone wants to know is finally here: at 11 AM Central, New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise will be free agent and open to negotiate with any team, including his hometown Minnesota Wild.
It's a scenario that many fans in the State of Hockey have dreamt about for the past year. At times "Parise Wach" has overshadowed any other discussion about the Wild; especially since their season ended in April missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. That speculation, however, will soon be over as in the next few hours, days or weeks, we will find out if Lou Nanne's declaration that Minnesota owner Craig Leipold "will pay more than anybody else" is enough.
But Parise is not the only decision coming up in Minnesota hockey. Or even the most impactful on the ice.
On the other side of the Twin Cities, junior Nick Bjugstad faces the tough choice of playing for the University of Minnesota or turning pro and suiting up with the reigning Southeast Division-winning Florida Panthers. With the Gophers, Bjugstad, who scored 25 goals in 40 games, has a chance to be the final piece of a team that on paper is a national title contender. The West Region and WCHA regular season champions last season return their top six defensemen and add a pair of talented freshman on the blue line in 2012 first round pick Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) and Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets). Up front, Jake Hansen (Blue Jackets) was the only one who graduated out of the top 7 scorers.
Getting the 6'5", 204 lb Bjugstad back would be similar to the team who ousted Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinals last year, Boston College. Although the Eagles returned plenty of talent without Chris Kreider, getting the junior to return rather than play for the New York Rangers made a huge difference on that national championship team. He led BC with 46 points (24G-22A) and provided valuable leadership before making the jump and shining with the Rangers in the NHL postseason.
Like Kreider, who coincidentally was picked in the same draft spot (19th overall) the year before Nick (2009 instead of 2010), Bjugstad has an NHL-ready frame and at times looked to be a man among boys in the WCHA. It's not out of line to see him in an NHL uniform next season and you can be sure Florida will be making their sales pitch this week when he attends the Panthers' prospect development camp.
On the other end of the hockey sales pitches sees Wild General Chuck Fletcher trying to bring in Parise to help bolster an offense that scored the lowest number of goals since the NHL Lockout in 2004-2005. Part of the reason for the low scoring was that Minnesota was plagued by injuries. The team lost over 300 man-games and saw players like Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse, Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen out for long stretches, making it easy for teams to focus on Dany Heatley's line.
That's hard to see happening again and Zach, who has topped the 30 goal mark five times (including 31 goals last season), gives the team another option in their top-six to share the load. Just as important, signing Parise - even if the Wild overpays by a million or two - would rejuvenate a franchise that is dangerously teetering into irrelevancy among the crowded Twin Cities sports landscape. The honeymoon has been over for a while at the Xcel Energy Center and missing the playoffs four years in a row without a selling point equals empty seats. The Wild having a half-dozen talented prospects with ridiculous upside turning pro, including 2010 first round pick Mikael Granlund, is great but it cannot compare to having an elite player from Minnesota at the peak of his career choose to play here.
Simply put, this is why expectations are so high.
Minnesota's best weapon, other than the hometown factor, is the ability to spend money. They are close to $20 million under the $70.2 million salary cap for 2012-2013; however will it be enough to lure Zach compared to teams that are closer to winning a Stanley Cup like Detroit or Pittsburgh? Even if Parise signs with the Wild, there are still a few holes to fill on the defense. Unless Fletcher somehow can convince Zach and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter to join forces in a NWO-style coup, the NHL team in Minnesota won't share the same expectations as the college team in Dinkytown. And that is with or without Nick Bjugstad.
The next week will be interesting to watch hockey-wise. As the Wild have a legitimate chance to bolster their lineup through free agency with Zach Parise or Suter, the Gophers await on whether their top goal-scorer wants to return for one last chance to win a national championship. It's a week to see things fall in place and it's a week that will shape a pair of Minnesota 2012-2013 seasons, one way or another.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.
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